Three different types of empathy and why empathy is more important than ever in a society where we are increasingly isolated from each other
In clinical settings where many of the person to person encounters a caregiver has in a day are with a patient facing some type of health issue, empathy is a professional necessity. But beyond the clinical setting, an understanding of empathy is vital to the formation of a real emotional connection with another human being. In an age where much of our interaction happens through screens and with gifs, memes, and emoticons, the art of empathetically connecting with another person is something that we need to work harder at and be more conscious of for our individual relationships and societal relationships to thrive.
A Definition of Empathy
Our English word “empathy” is derived from a combination of two Greek words εν (en: in) and πάθος (pathos: suffering; experience). You might also recognize pathos as a mode of persuasion that is based on appealing to the emotions of an audience (Wikipedia). So broken down into its basic etymological parts, to have empathy is to be in the suffering, experience, and emotions of another person. To an extent, you are able to mirror those emotions and feel something of what the other person feels. This emotional reflection could fall anywhere on the spectrum of human feeling (i.e. from joy to grief). It’s also worth noting that this is different than sympathy which is pity or feeling sorry for someone versus attempting to mirror/feel the emotions of the other person.
Psychology Today defines empathy like this:
Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own. You try to imagine yourself in their place in order to understand what they are feeling or experiencing. Empathy facilitates prosocial (helping) behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced, so that we behave in a more compassionate manner.
This is a helpful working definition of empathy but I would suggest that there are three basic levels of empathy that are differentiated based on experience, training, and exposure.
All functioning humans have an ability to empathize. A person who lacks this ability is known as a sociopath and can have significant difficulties functioning in the world due to a lack of ability to connect emotionally with other people. Basic empathy is what you experience when a friend loses their mother and they come to you crying and in grief. While you haven’t lost your mother, you put yourself in the shoes of your friend and imagine the grief they must feel at this loss and, to an extent, experience some of the same grief yourself. So you aren’t just feeling sorry for your friend (sympathy) but you are feeling some of the same emotions your friend is feeling (grief, loss, fear of the unknown). You have just experienced and demonstrated basic empathy. Basic empathy takes time, effort, and real person to person interaction.
The big differences between basic and advanced empathy are training and regular exposure to people facing trauma. The training clinical Chaplains go through (Clinical Pastoral Education) is designed to help caregivers learn to experience empathetic connections with patients from a multiplicity of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds and appreciate that each person has a unique story and experience. This training and repeated exposure to people in traumatic circumstances helps the caregiver become more aware of their own emotions and better able to identify and mirror (empathize) with the emotions of others. A great tool that many clinicians use is a feeling wheel where basic empathetic emotions are identified near the center of the wheel and more complex and layered emotions are identified while working out from the center. Those with training and/or regular exposure to those facing traumatic circumstances should be able to name, mirror, and function comfortably in the middle and outer rings of the feeling wheel. To get here takes time, effort, and real person to person interaction.
The third and deepest level of empathy is experiential empathy. Experiential empathy is especially powerful because it implies that in a caregiving encounter, the caregiver and the one seeking care have had a similar experience. When I visit a patient on the cancer ward of the hospital, I’m able to practice advanced empathy and accurately reflect the emotions of the patient but I can’t say (and it would be foolish to say) that I’ve experienced what they have. However, if a colleague who has had cancer visits a patient on that ward, he is able to empathize with them on a level that I cannot because of a shared experience. My colleague has experienced the ravages of chemotherapy and can speak to that with an intimacy that I can’t. We can both empathize with a patient facing cancer but my colleague’s empathy is forged in the fires of experience whereas mine is a mirroring of the emotions of the patient.
Caregivers are often able to find other points of connection for experiential empathy through other shared experiences. Maybe the caregiver has not faced the same health issue the patient is experiencing but both are parents and can connect over the mutual struggles of parenting. Experiential empathy is still possible through exploring the story of a person and finding connection points that allow for a deeper level of emotional mirroring than basic or advanced empathy. This takes time, effort, and real person to person interaction.
Why Empathy Matters
It’s easier than ever today to talk to, around, and about people but never form any emotional connection with them. A quick survey of the comments section on a hot-button news article will reveal just how vicious people can be to one another when there is no empathy involved. Far more serious than the comments on the internet is the increasing polarization of society where we are cut off from one another by technology and funneled into angry echo chambers where empathy is impossible and unnecessary because everyone, supposedly, thinks and feels the same and anyone outside the group is dangerous; the enemy. It is far easier for us to be malevolent and violent toward one another when we are disconnected emotionally from each other.
Empathy toward other people allows us as individuals and a society to tap the breaks and try to walk a mile in the shoes of the people around us. It forces us to slow down and hear the voices of everyone and not just those in our echo chamber. It creates the emotional space necessary for bridges to be built, compromise to be made, and for a diverse society to continue to function with some modicum of dignity and respect.
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” — Jesus (Matthew 7:12)